By Samuel Chui
One of the greatest satisfactions for public architects is for them to see their hard work become reality, whether it’s for an interior refresh of a fire station or new construction of a recreation center. The true litmus test of whether a project was successfully developed surfaces after the facility is occupied. Some of the major complaints from facility managers and operators during the first few months following the start of building occupancy point to room for improvements in the process of project development. This article provides recommendations to overcome five obstacles to a seamless transition between project development and facility management.
- Chaotic dash to ready the building for move
Like the minutes before curtains are drawn at a staged production, the weeks between substantial completion and occupants’ move-in are often wrought with madness; the back-of-house becomes a stage on which heroic individuals going above and beyond their job descriptions to figure out why something doesn’t work and to “make it work.” This symptom points to lapse in responsibilities between project development and facility management. Some of the tasks often overlooked include installation of furniture, fixture, and equipment (FF&E) or application of technology for building systems. Occupancy sometimes awaits approval of owner-responsible operator permits, such as those required for food preparation or emergency power generators. Expectations on the “level of efforts” required to start-up, operate, and maintain the facility is often lower than the actual scenario. Besides independent commissioning – a process that has become commonplace since LEED certification gained popularity, projects should include a robust move strategy that considers a plan to detail the tasks required, and assign corresponding roles and responsibilities for all participants during this transition. This plan shall be organized as a sequence of tasks and activities along a timeline, from the latter parts of construction, through post-occupancy.
- Changes in intended use or occupancy of the facility
Construction duration for most buildings takes about two years. Add to that the durations for design and bid, growth in occupants or changes to the intended purpose are to be expected in this iterative process. An experienced public architect always documents these changes. Clients’ sign-off on a Room Data Sheet (RDS) is recommended for projects with rich programs. As a companion to the Project Program, a RDS is organized by functional areas and includes attributes and requirements associated with those spaces. It documents what has been agreed to by the client and authorized user groups. By integrating the RDS through project development, the team, including key stakeholders, can better articulate decisions made and trace the changes along the way.
- Intended operation or functionality of building systems unclear
Building engineers sometimes feel like they are left in the dark to figure out how to operate the facility. Unlike a residential or office building, every public facility is its own prototype. During early stages of design, the team decides on mechanical systems or configuration of the low voltage components; the facility management team will be living with those decisions. In addition, there are technological learning curves. Smart building controls, for example, offer new possibilities, such as better energy efficiency and more customized user settings. At the same time, it expands the range of required skillsets required to properly operate and in many cases program the building systems. To address this lapse, a comprehensive Basis of Design (BOD) Document will define the important aspects of operations and maintenance. This platform serves to incorporate the knowledge of, and requirements important to, the key stakeholders, including the facility management team. Through the BOD, the facility manager also becomes more aware of the occupants’ and user groups’ desired purposes for the facility, and gain a greater appreciation for the decisions considered. This assures that all project participants are aligned on business objectives as reflected in the owner’s project requirements, and that the client representative, construction manager, designers, and operators are clear on wants and needs. The BOD is focused on supporting an efficient construction execution strategy which reflects project construction considerations, opportunities and constraints. Furthermore, the BOD can be quickly translated into a useful asset management database upon startup. Training workshops on key systems is a practical approach to conveying the intended operation or functionality of building systems. Where appropriate, videotaping user training sessions will further assure that operators and users are advised on the properly use, operation, and maintenance of the installations.
- Inadequate or inaccurate records of as-constructed conditions
As-built drawings are often a dreaded task performed by the project contractor, who is eager to pass it onto its subcontractors’ to-do list. Collecting and transposing information seems redundant and ancillary to the construction works, and the time expended must be absorbed in the overhead. These drawings, however, will be used by the facility manager and operators as a critical reference throughout the expected life of the building. It is one of the platforms on which to leave behind “breadcrumbs,” providing clues for future occupants and operators on the as-constructed conditions of the facility. It is important to set the expectations on standards for updates to as-built drawing, specifications, and maintenance requirements; and to agree on the level of details to be included. Before construction begins, the public architect should facilitate an agreement among key team members on what the final record will look like. To augment the as-constructed records, some agencies also commission inspection-grade construction photography. Comprehensive construction photography provides a chronological visual history of the construction, thereby documenting hidden as-built conditions. Clear organization is requisite to the usefulness of the construction photo documentation. New digital applications are capable of indexing the photography in a manner that allows for effective retrieval in the future, furthering accountability and transparency on project development.
- Lapse in maintenance services or unclear on terms of warranty
It is a common fallacy to assume that the building as substantially complete will run like a brand new car. While there is a widely-accepted warranty period of one-year, or longer for specialty components, a lapse in required maintenance, such as that for the water cooling tower, could potentially void the warranty. Building O&M can be performed by employees of the client department or contracted to a consultant firm. If the latter two option is chosen, the maintenance service provider must be contracted in advance of substantial completion to be effective. For public agencies, the time required to solicit and onboard a contractor could pose a schedule risk if the operator is not present at substantial completion. Some building systems require accredited service maintenance providers, which further prolongs the schedule or adds to the O&M budget. One solution is to include extended terms of warranty or service maintenance contracts as part of the competitive bid for the installation of selected systems. In addition, the public architect should assist the facility manager to plan the requirements defining a comprehensive O&M manual throughout the entire development of the project. Often ancillary to the project, the O&M manual results in several hastily compiled binders that minimally meet the requirements of the specification referenced in the Request for Proposal for construction services. On the contrary, if proper expectations are defined, the O&M Manual is an opportunity to collect and organize all relevant data and information, including a schedule of preventive maintenance – thus creating one of the most powerful tools to bridge the lapse between project development and facilities management.
In summary, successfully managing a newly-constructed public facility is no walk in the park. Every building is unique, and advances in building technology require innovative and flexible operation and maintenance of these assets. Much of the frustrations faced by public architects of this transition are the result of having kicked the proverbial can down the road – to this fork where the success of the project is defined by the users’ perception of how closely the operation and function of the facility align with its intended use. Nonetheless, these recommendations share a common thread – the need for thoughtful documentation planned early and elaborated through project development.